Home > Miscellaneous > Prophecy: I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Prophecy: I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

I listened to people talk about Revelation a week or so ago, and thankfully held my passionately frustrated tongue, which reminded me of an old blog post by Greg Boyd that can be found here. He talks about some examples of unfulfilled prophecy in Scripture. Not just stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but examples where something was prophesied in Scripture and later Scripture reveals that what was prophesied would happen does not happen. It’s kind of outside of typical Christian conversations about the Bible, so naturally, I’d like to talk about it a little bit and maybe get the conversation ball rolling. Although normally I give the ball a good shove to no avail. I still enjoy pushing it though.

We’ll start with some examples that it would probably be good to think about before we discuss this stuff. I’m gonna do a lot of shortening up to save space, but I’ll try not to make any passage say something it doesn’t, and they are all right there so you can check up on me.

Prophecy What actually happened
Ezekiel 26:7-12

“From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar… with a great army. He will ravage your settlements… He will demolish your towers with his weapons…he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground…. They will beat down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber, and rubble into the sea.”

Ezekiel 29:18-20
“Nebuchadnezzar drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign against Tyre.”
Jeremiah 22:18-19; 36:30

Therefore this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah:

“They will not mourn for him: ‘Alas my brother! Alas my sister!’… He will have the burial of a donkey — dragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem.”

2 Kings 24:6
Jehoiakim rested with his fathers. And Jehoiachin his son succeeded him as king.
Jeremiah 34:4-5
“‘Ye hear the promise of the Lord, O Zedekiah king of Judah. This is what the Lord says concerning you: You will not die by the sword; you will die peacefully. As people made a funeral fire in honor of your fathers,… so they will make a fire in your honor and lament… I myself make this promise, declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 52:8-11
The Babylonian army pursued King Zedekiah… and he was captured. He was taken to the king of Babylon… There… the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes… Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison until the day of his death.

I’ll explain these a little for any who doesn’t want to pay attention to my table. I thought I’d try something a little new and crazy. Ezekiel says that YHWH said that the Lord will use Nebuchadnezzar to completely destroy Tyre, but we find out just a few chapters later that Nebby’s campaign was long, difficult, and unsuccessful. In fact, Tyre wasn’t laid waste for many, many years, and it definitely wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar that did it. Jeremiah said that the Jehoiakim wouldn’t be buried or even have his descendants succeed him as king, but in another part of the bible we see that Jehoiakim was buried with his ancestors and his son became king after he died. Jeremiah said that God promised Zedekiah would die peacefully be properly lamented by his people. Then Jeremiah tells us later that something totally different happened, the last thing he saw before having his eyes stabbed out was his sons being brutally murdered, then the king died blind in a prison cell held captive by his conquerors and murder of his children. This gruesome manner of death seems a far cry from YHWH’s reassuring words of Jeremiah 34:4-5.

So… these passages appear to be illustrative of a view of prophecy that calmly and quietly sits in opposition to what I have always been taught prophecy was. It’s right there, but who touches it? Who talks about this stuff? Not anyone I know. Not really. Doesn’t it seem pretty important? It forces us to rethink how we define and think about prophecy in Scripture in a way that is more true to Scripture. But these are difficult things to make heads or tails of, especially since there weren’t quarters in the bible.

How do we make sense of passages like these? How do we reconcile them? I’m asking you, but I have a few quick ideas to throw out there. First, we could simply say that the God of the Bible is either nonexistent or impotent and the Christian Bible should be disregarded as contradictory and false. That seems like a fair conclusion to me. Second, we could go Boyd on these passages and say that for reasons unknown to us (and notably unnoted in the text) God changed his mind and decided to make things happen differently. I do think God is free and is so powerful that he can dynamically change his decisions in response to our actions without compromising his integrity of character. Third, perhaps the way that we perceive prophecy is not the same way that the authors of the Bible perceive of prophecy. Certainly the prophets themselves had no issue with revealing how what they prophesied did not actually happen. That seems to indicate that they might have saw what they were saying a little differently than we do. Fourth, perhaps these passages and passages like these are the prophets referring solely to what will happen in the afterlife and communicating it in this life metaphors. Scripture definitely contains a strong element of future vindication for the faithful, wrath for those in opposition, and justice for all.

Do you have any other ideas? I have more thoughts to post on this issue at a later time. It feels important. At the least, it’s somewhat unique. We owe it to ourselves, Scripture, and God to ask these kinds of questions about what many of us say is the very word of God. I think it is humble, intellectually honest, trustworthy, and faithful to consider and discuss the things that challenge our perspective and contradictions in the Bible, not writing them off because a contradiction in Scripture is inconceivable.*

*See title, and please, someone tell me they get it. I don’t know how well my sometimes subtle references work…

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  1. August 21, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Firstly, I think the title is wonderful. I am a huge, HUGE fan of The Princess Bride, and I can actually quote nearly 90% of it.

    Secondly, I think that is very important. All too many people believe in the Bible yet don’t know why they do, nor can they quote anything beyond John 3:16. There’s a difference between the faith of a child and ignorance. Faith of a child implies following without question, while remaining curious. Ignorance is not knowing one believes.

    I think mankind’s flaws can change the outcome. God gave man free will, which has led to death and pain and hate and war. This isn’t God’s fault, and I don’t think God didn’t know it would happen. The free will, however, is key. God didn’t want Adam and Eve to fall to sin, I’m sure, though I am certain He knew it would be a choice they would eventually have to make for themselves, whether or not it happened according to His plan.

    I think a lot gets lost between the original language of the Scriptures and English(and the various translations thereof).

    I didn’t mean to ramble so long, but this is something that really caught my attention, and I would like to thank you for asking such a question.

  2. Joel Morgan
    August 22, 2010 at 8:24 am

    interesting…you may proceed.

  3. August 22, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the response Robert. Out of curiosity, who are you and how did you find me? 🙂 I think you make a fair point about not being childish in such a way that we are ignorant by choice. I do agree that in many cases, a lot gets lost in the translation to English. Most English translations are generally agreed on the basics of what was being said in the passages in question, and I wouldn’t think that in Hebrew the fundamentals of what was being predicted and what occurred would be different.

    Don’t worry about rambling. That’s all I do, and its far more enjoyable to respond to than a comment like Joel’s. 😉

  4. August 22, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I saw this under the recent posts list from the ‘Dashboard’.
    As to who I am, well, I’m a fellow blogger. =)

    I looked into it(a lot) and I don’t think it’s an unfulfilled prophecy, persé, but rather an altered one.

    In Jeremiah 52:7, regarding the chief of executioners of Babylon it says something to this effect: “he removeth Judah from off its own ground”.
    He utterly annihilated Judah and drove the people from it, best I can tell.

    In Jeremiah 34:21-22, it says this: “And Zedekiah king of Judah, and his heads, I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those seeking their soul, and into the hand of the forces of the king of Babylon, that are going up from off you.
    Lo, I am commanding — an affirmation of Jehovah — and have brought them back unto this city, and they have fought against it, and captured it, and burned it with fire, and the cities of Judah I do make a desolation — without inhabitant.'”

    In this prophecy, it says Zedekiah’s head would be given unto Babylon.
    They seem to contradict, but one is because in 34:14, it says this: “and your fathers hearkened not unto Me, nor inclined their ear.”
    God had spoken to them before, but those He spoke to ignored what He said. I think that it was mankind’s free will in this that changed the prophecy.

    Anyways, my two cents.
    And I really enjoy rambling–any time I get the chance, I jump at the opportunity. =)

  5. David C. Miller
    August 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Jeremiah,

    First when we speak about prophecy, we should make a distinction between foretelling and forthtelling. That is, not all (or even most) prophecy is straight-forward prediction of future events that will come to pass. Prophets also proclaim the present direct revelation of God. This is especially true of Jeremiah and Ezekiel who lived through the very events that they prophesied about.

    As to the exact examples you cite:

    1. Ezekiel predicts that Nebuchadnezzar will lay siege to Tyre, but the siege is eventually broken.

    …but that’s not the entire prophecy. Look again at Ezekiel 29, this time quoting the entire thing.

    ***
    Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock. She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets, for I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD. And she shall become plunder for the nations, and her daughters on the mainland shall be killed by the sword. Then they will know that I am the LORD.

    For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers. He will kill with the sword your daughters on the mainland. He will set up a siege wall against you and throw up a mound against you, and raise a roof of shields against you. He will direct the shock of his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. His horses will be so many that their dust will cover you. Your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen and wagons and chariots, when he enters your gates as men enter a city that has been breached. With the hoofs of his horses he will trample all your streets. He will kill your people with the sword, and your mighty pillars will fall to the ground. They will plunder your riches and loot your merchandise. They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses. Your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters. And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more. I will make you a bare rock. You shall be a place for the spreading of nets. You shall never be rebuilt, for I am the LORD; I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD.
    ***

    I’m sorry if the bolding got a little out of hand, but I wanted to highlight the switch in pronouns. The ‘they’ in verse 12 is not referring to Nebuchadnezzar, but to the ‘many nations’ in verse 3. Tyre will eventually fall completely to Alexander the Great (and lots of other people throughout history), but their immediate suffering and judgement is severe: Tyre consists of a city on the mainland and a city on a nearby island, and the city on the mainland is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel is certainly predicting that future events will come to pass (and you could say that the prophecy is ultimately fulfilled by Alexander), but that’s not what I think we should focus on. I think Ezekiel’s message is primarily:

    1. Proclaiming judgement on Tyre for their sins, just as he promises judgement on us for ours.
    2. Explaining that God is using the nations of the world (and especially Nebuchadnezzar) as his instrument of wrath, even if Nebuchadnezzar isn’t a Jew and doesn’t worship God.

    These elements of the prophecy are certainly fulfilled, even if the ‘ultimate’ literal fulfillment doesn’t come until later. But again, I don’t think that the prediction of future events is what is primarily remarkable about the passage. Instead, it’s the present pronouncement of God’s judgement. Imagine that I told you that the Chicago Cubs are terrible this year and will not make the playoffs. That’s not exactly a stirring miraculous bold prediction: it’s mid-August and they are trading away their good players and are 23 games under .500. My main message is that the Cubs are terrible. Ezekiel wrote the prophecy just a matter of months before the siege started.

    Maybe all of the above is sophistry, a weaselly way to read scripture. But don’t move the goalposts! Ezekiel pronounces the present judgement of God against Tyre, and the city goes kablammo. Give him a little room for poetic license. That’s hardly a contradiction or broken promise of scripture, nor does it give us permission to read this prophecy of Ezekiel as ‘referring solely to what will happen in the afterlife and communicating it in this life metaphors’, whatever that means. I think that what Ezekiel claims will come to pass DOES in fact come to pass. But I give ‘Zeke a little wiggle room.

    2. Jeremiah 22: Jehoiakim is prophesied to die an ignoble death, not be mourned by his people, and his sons will not rule anymore in Judah.

    You can say that this was not fulfilled only if you are really, really picky. Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin ‘rules’ for all of 3 months while Jerusalem is under siege before he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar then makes Jehoiachin’s uncle the new king (renamed Zedekiah), ending the line.

    The passage you cite from 2 Kings about the death of Jehoiakim also doesn’t mean what you think it means. The phrase ‘rested with his fathers’ is simply a euphemism for death, used throughout the Bible whenever a ruler dies. See 1 Kings 1:21, 1 Kings 2:10, Genesis 15:15, Genesis 47:30, and Deuteronomy 31:16. Does that last one mean that Moses was physically buried with his ancestors? No- we are told where he was buried, and it isn’t near his ancestors. It’s just a fancy way of saying he died.

    Moreover, the passage you cite as contradicting the prophecy says more by what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say where Jehoiakim was buried. Cross-reference this with 2 Chronicles 12:16 and 16:13, which record the deaths of Rehoboam and Asa, complete with the phrase ‘rested with his fathers’. Those two verses then go on to say ‘…and was buried in X’. 2 Kings 24:6 has no record of funeral arrangements or of where he was buried, which is exactly what Jeremiah said would happen. 2 Chronicles 36:6 records that Jehoiakim is shackled.

    3. Jeremiah 34: Zedekiah is prophecied to have a natural death and a funeral, but instead his sons are murdered and his eyes cut out.

    Here, I think you just interpret the prophecy incorrectly. Jeremiah has lots of terrible things to say about Zedekiah, but two merciful things: he will not die in battle, and he will be mourned (in contrast to Jehoiakim who wasn’t mourned). And this is apparently exactly what happens: he’s blinded, sure, but he’s taken back to Babylon and eventually dies sometime later in prison. We’re not told anything about a funeral, but we’re not told there wasn’t one, either. You can’t take a prophecy that includes both judgement and mercy, have that mercy be granted, and then complain about the judgement part when it’s granted too. That’s cheating.

    So I guess that’s how I reconcile those passages. Is it ‘intellectually honest’? I don’t know who decides that, besides God. It’s a mixture of metaphor, hyperbole, future fulfillment, and properly understanding prophecy.

    I’d like to talk more about Open Theism, but I’ve said enough here already for you to respond to. We’ll get into a discussion of Jonah eventually, too, as an example of prophecy that was avoided as a result of repentance.

  6. August 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    David,

    First, I want you to know that I would really appreciate it if next time you could put a little bit of thought into your comments. 😉 First #2: Happy Belated Birthday.
    Second, I feel like you maybe read a little more into what I was doing. What I was trying to do was take similar content of the post I linked to and present it in a way that was more provocative and more amenable to open questions and responses. I think I was somewhat successful on that point. I was also trying not to actually say much about the passages other than a few things I hoped would be an impetus to more voices. I don’t expect you to read the original article, but how I present this stuff is very much the same, except I tried to minimize explanation of it I actually feel that the original article was poorly explained and wanted more discussion on it. I was planning on more thoroughly explaining myself in a proceeding blog post, but your work seems to force me to do some of that here. 🙂
    Simple summary, I fundamentally largely agree with your thoughts on this stuff. Starting from the bottom up, I think the prophecies of Zedekiah was the weakest one. I included this because with a cursory reading, I think there is something to be said about the level of peace of Zedekiah’s death as compared to what Jeremiah seems to indicate, but I don’t think it’s a very strong argument. Certainly it appears that contextually, “peaceful” merely means not dying in battle. And actually, I think the argument could be made (not that I’m necessarily think it is true) that the comforting message of being mourned is an ironic one, given the reprimands, pronouncements of judgments, and recordings in Jeremiah of what actually happened to Zedekiah. How comforting or promising is Jeremiah’s (I think?) one “positive” message about Zedekiah?
    On the Jonah thing, I like your point. I might rephrase in a way that is somewhat revealing as to my thoughts on the topic, the Ninevites repentant response to Jonah’s message that “Ninevah will be destroyed in forty days” is in one sense a fulfillment of prophecy because one of the primary goals of a prophetic messages is for those that hear it to turn toward YHWH. Also, Jonah really should have read Nahum prior to pronouncing his pathetic prophetic message. 🙂
    And, I have to go, will talk about the other two soon. I guess I should have gotten to those first. Thanks MRMILLER.

  7. August 24, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Alrighty… I feel like we have different types of conversations with people. It was fascinating to me that these things were brought up, apparently written about in a book by a theologian and then quoted by another theologian/pastor. The mere presence of this stuff, authored by people that are respected, seems indicative of an issue with how a lot of people view prophecy and Scripture. A lot of the people I know have such a hard time fitting in stuff like this into their destructive combination of a Nostradamic view of prophecy and a literal at all costs interpretation of the writings of Scripture. I thought the second example was a pretty strong example of this.
    I do agree that “resting with his fathers” is not really evidence at all that he was actually buried with his ancestors. I have heard the case made that as a general rule this phrase does mean burial alongside ancestors, however there are some notable exceptions. I do disagree with you that this passage functions to show how the prophecy actually does come true because of what it doesn’t say. I think it’s evidence of nothing.
    The fact that the son of Jehoiakim ruled for any amount of time is directly contradictory to what was predicted. Picky or not, what was specifically said would happen is not what happened. But to put that much into the literal meaning and specific words of a small passage is to really miss out on the communicative intent of God through Jeremiah (that’s a sweet name). Obviously the point that was being made was that Jehoiakim’s reign was functionally over for him and for the rest that came after him, and losing this reign was the righteous judgment of the way in which Jehoiakim chose to reign. I don’t think it’s dishonest to say that what Jeremiah said would come true didn’t. At the same time, if that is what one thinks, then they’ve completely missed the point of what was being communicated.
    I appreciate you trying to make things simple for my small brain by using a baseball example, but whenever I hear about baseball I start sleeping. 🙂 Also, if you want to quote a whole passage and bold the thing, go for it, but I want you to know that if you simply tell me that there’s an important pronoun shift in verse A in passage B I’ll probably understand just what you’re saying. Whatever you’d like. 🙂 I’m very smiley today.
    I’m on my way out the door again. I’ll just say a few quick things. I think your idea of the siege of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar being so close it’s not really a prediction to say it is going to happen is key. I think it’s very possible that the siege was already going on or had happened when this stuff was written down. Allowing “poetic freedom” to use apocalyptic-ish language hyperbole, drama, metaphor, etc. to reveal and infuse events with cosmic meaning as the interaction of a sovereign God with humanity is an element so key to understanding prophecy. Thanks for your words.

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